The general publisher of tomorrow

How would you choose to build a general book publisher today, if starting from scratch? That was the question I found myself asking two years ago.

By general publisher I mean that delicate balancing act which the publishing industry has so often been adept at, of combining riskier publishing with safer bets, to keep shareholders’ hair on, and publishing across unrelated categories, to cushion against unforeseeable changes in readers’ taste. Single-focus innovation is a beautiful thing, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to longevity. The life span of an all-conquering tech giant is, what, 10-20 years these days. Compare that with the longevity of some general book publishers.

The question occupied me after spending a year consulting with a variety of book publishers small and large, self-publishing authors, website publishers, and companies from other sectors running some type of publishing activity. I learned in the process about some truly brilliant specialist operations. But the impressions I came away with were really of fragmentation – a previously joined-up world of reading consumption fragmenting into different types of reading each best served by a different business model. Did it even make sense any more to yoke different areas together?

Large parts of what was reference book publishing, for example, are now quite simply better served to users in website form, with players from other sectors already having stolen that show. Genre fiction publishing, with its natural proclivity for series, is a hundred times better served by continuous reader-based marketing of the kind at which clued-up self-publishing authors are now able to excel, rather than the, let’s face it, one-time marketing push that traditional print routes to market encourage.

Of course, one answer could be to stick to those subjects which continue to sell robustly through the existing booktrade – to act as the general trade publisher. But how many would deliberately choose these days to tie their whole publishing business future to the traditional book supply chain? I think the honest answer – if starting from scratch – is only the determined few.

A little historical perspective can sometimes be useful, in pointing the way to the future. I had the luck of working for the wonderful Nick Robinson at Constable & Robinson. There we were surrounded by publishing history but never with, it seemed, enough time to really think about it. I used to be intrigued by the pioneering moments of the original Constable (first advance against royalties, the three-decker novel, etc). Only now can I see that what really mattered was the historical context in which Archibald Constable, like John Murray and others, started up.

The original Constable, like the original Murray, started their businesses against the backdrop of an increasingly creaking English book trade in the late eighteenth century. The traditional industry structure, with copy-owning booksellers at its centre, sustained by a share-book system which had endured for 200 years, was becoming anachronistic and looking well past its ‘use by’ date. Into this space stepped a new breed of publishers.

There is a sense in which we’re at a similar juncture now. The traditional print-based routes to market are a thing of marvellous archaeological complexity, but are not something you would have designed from scratch and make little logic to new entrants today. If you have worked in the book industry for a good part of your career, it can be difficult to see just how ossified it has become.

And yet the printed booktrade continues to account for something like 75% of all general book publishing sales. It is undoubtedly where the largest market value still lies.

So it was that for the launch of Prelude Books we decided to combine two quite different types of publishing, uncertain how many synergies we would find. With one half of the business we set out to replicate the mailing list-based, continual marketing approach to series genre fiction that successful self-publishing authors have pioneered. While with the other half we aimed to embrace the surviving booktrade with all its (lovable) idiosyncracies, through a focus on print-led nonfiction.

We are just one of a number of recent companies now publishing genre fiction in the new way, with an early pace-setter being Bookouture and more recent examples including Joffe Books, so count ourselves as a happy follower rather than anything innovative in this respect.  But when it comes to combining that with a traditional route to market, print-led capability, I know there are few currently – the admirable Head of Zeus being another.

In developing our series fiction imprint, Farrago, I told myself to unlearn anything I knew about trade publishing. Perhaps I need not have worried. The differences in approach required were stark from the start.

Farrago (‘fiction to make you smile’) was born out of a gnawing sense that traditional publishing had failed the large numbers of fiction readers who simply want to be made to laugh. Humorous fiction has never had a bookshop bookshelf of its own; it is highly subjective to personal taste; and liable to date quickly – all instant downers to a trade publisher, and by the same considerations the perfect testing ground for the targeted paid social advertising and mailing list-based marketing that’s now possible.

From the moment we started our first lead generation campaign and reader responses started rolling in, the scales fell from our eyes. In this new type of publishing the relationship with the reader is fantastically direct and instantaneous – no more having to persuade intermediaries to stock a book then rely on yet more intermediaries to build the basic level of buzz.

Would we find enough synergies to justify combining the two kinds of publishing? A little over 18 months in, some are apparent. Even when their readers’ preferred format is ebook and their author revenues will always favour digital, many genre fiction authors place huge personal value on the printed format and print-edition visibility. Having the structure to be able to publish them in print with passion as well, as opposed to passive POD, is a real advantage.

Other synergies we hope are still to come. One is to apply the marketing techniques from the series fiction side to our print-led nonfiction. With the slow shrinking of conventional print-based review media, it seems an essential next step. We are helped in learning about this by our sales association with the brilliant The School of Life, who with over 3 million Youtube subscribers and a sophisticated programme of social media and email marketing are a standout example of consumer brand success in the nonfiction realm.

But the real test of course will be many years off – and if we get that far.

In the earlier new world of books heralded by the likes of John Murray and Constable, some older, longstanding publishing operations continued to survive and prosper, for example Longman. They did so by embracing or genuinely adding new business models. Perhaps we are at a similar point now, such that in a generation’s time, the remaining general publishers will be those who started afresh or found ways to adapt today.